A bill that would place into trust lands considered sacred to the Pala Band of Mission Indians passed Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.
H.R. 1975 -- The Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act of 2021 -- was authored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Bonsall, and cosponsored by Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego.
"This bill enjoys broad and bipartisan support because it is the product of government and tribal communities working together to extend the reservation and ensure the culture and legacy of these lands are protected for future generations," Issa said.
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The legislation is intended to authorize Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to transfer around 720 acres of land -- which includes a sacred site known locally as Gregory Mountain, or as Chokla in Luiseno -- that was acquired by the Pala into trust for the benefit of the tribe and its members.
Chokla is next to Highway 76 and looms above the San Luis Rey River, the Pala Casino and an old quarry. A controversial 20-year fight to build a landfill at its foot in Gregory Canyon was stopped in 2016 when the Pala Band of Mission Indians purchased a portion of the site for $13 million.
"Through H.R. 1975, we put these lands into a federal trust and ensure that Chokla, the sacred mountain to the Pala Band, is respected and protected for future traditions," Vargas said.
The Pala Band -- made up of descendants from both Cupeno and Luiseno peoples -- have used Chokla as a place to pray and fast since at least 1903, when the U.S. government forcibly moved the Cupeno from their ancestral home near what is now Warner Springs in remote northeastern San Diego County to the reservation which already held Luiseno peoples not far south of Temecula.
According to the tribe's own history, the 40-mile journey from the place they called "Cupa" to Pala took three days.
The Luiseno Indians also used Chokla as a sacred place for centuries prior, describing it as one of the resting places of the powerful spirit Takwish. Shasta Gaughen, the tribe's assistant cultural director and an anthropologist at Cal State San Marcos, described Takwish as keeping "the balance between life and death" in an article she wrote for Indian Voices prior to 2016.
Additionally, Medicine Rock, a sacred spot with ancient pictographs used for rituals and healing, is also located at the base of Chokla
"The Pala Band of Mission Indians would like to express our gratitude to Congressman Darrell Issa for the work he has done to help us protect our sacred ancestral lands," Pala Chairman Robert Smith said. "We are also grateful to Congressman Juan Vargas for his long-standing partnership in our fight to protect Chokla, our sacred mountain.
"Putting these lands into federal trust through H.R. 1975 ensures that the people of Pala can continue to steward our lands and traditions as we have since time immemorial," Smith said.